The Old Meeker Ranch

We’ve geocached in 40 states. The only areas we haven’t explored are New England and the Pacific Northwest. But out of all that, our favorite geocaching destination is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills have it all – scenery, open spaces, mines, ghost towns, trails and more places to explore than you can do in one trip. And there are geocaches everywhere. You could geocache and explore there for the rest of your life and never get bored. They have everything from drive ups to day long quests. One of those quests took us to an abandoned homestead nestled deep in the hills. Locals call it the Old Meeker Ranch.

First look on the road in

First look

You can drive to within a mile on a forest service road with a locked gate. Then you walk in. This is the first view you get when you come over the rise. The pictures simply don’t do it justice. It is a breathtaking scene.

Natasha with the cache

Natasha with the ammo can find. The geocache was called “The Old Meeker Ranch”, GC1CTMH. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had deactivated it the day we found it. It might still be there, but we’ve got the last entry in the cache log.

The 278 acre ranch area was homesteaded in 1882 by Frank Meeker, who was a rider for the Pony Express in his younger days. He named his spread Willow Creek and that is still the name of the year round stream that flows through the middle of it.

The front door and barn

The front door and the barn. The barn is relatively new, built by the last owners in the 1950’s.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE – The Pony Express carried mail to/from St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento,CA. Letters cost $10 an ounce. The 120 riders covered the 1,900 mi (3,100 km) route in 10 days. Most of the riders were teenagers, some as young as 14. They rode legs of 75-100 miles, going at breakneck speed day and night. Switching horses at way stations that were about 10 miles apart, the riders kept to the timetable despite weather, terrain, outlaws, hostile Indians and numbing fatigue. Although successful, the Pony Express was only in operation from April 1860 to October 1861. It was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph. We don’t know what Frank Meeker did in the 21 years between the Pony Express and the Willow Creek homestead, but he must have been one tough hombre.**

These are original buildings from the late 1880’s. Although preserved and open to the public, the ranch has been bedeviled by vandalism in recent years. So far, it’s been broken windows and torn exterior clapboard, which have been fixed by workers. In fact, the day we were there, a BLM crew came out to inspect the place and do any needed repairs.

The ranch changed hands numerous times, ending up with the Davis family in 1952. They built the new barn and worked the spread until 1974. After they left, the ranch spent 30 years in limbo and disrepair before becoming part of the Black Hills National Forest in 2004.

The dilapidated kitchen

We’re explorers. Locked doors and “No Entry” signs drive us nuts. One of the great things about the ranch is that you can go inside the buildings, including the house. When the last family moved on, they left behind a treasure trove of artifacts – cans, jars, newspapers and more – on shelves and in closets. These aren’t props put there by someone. They’re the real deal. Use caution, of course. The upper floors aren’t safe. Watch out for weak spots in the structures and be alert for an occasional rattlesnake. Also keep in mind that this is wild country with black bears and mountain lions. If you have pets or small children, keep them close.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over in 2004 and scheduled the property for demolition in 2006. A grass roots effort led by local artist Jon Crane and the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust saved the ranch. They also raised funds for preservation work, an effort that is ongoing as we write this. A dedicated corps of volunteers working alongside the BLM and spearheaded by Historicorps keeps the ranch in a state of “arrested decay” for the public to visit.

Going out the way we came in

Looking at the way back. If you’re a photographer, this place should be on your bucket list. Here are some great photos taken on the Old Meeker Ranch.

For your GPS. N43.8042º W109.5554º. These coordinates will put you right at the center of the ranch. Click on them for a Google map.

The Old Meeker Ranch is a unique historical treasure. It is one of the few ranch homesteads in the country that is maintained, open to the public and freely accessible. Concerned citizens, historians, artists, archaeologists, businesses, trusts and government agencies work hard to keep it that way. Please enjoy it responsibly and safely.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

The Hotel del Coronado

Opened in 1888 on the shores of San Diego Bay in Coronado, California the Hotel Del Coronado is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world and America’s grandest Victorian seaside resort. It was built by Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story after they purchased all of Coronado for $110,000 in 1885.

Built on 33 acres, it was the largest hotel in the world upon completion.  It was also the largest building in the world outside of New York City to have electric lighting.  Thomas Edison supervised the installation of the electrical system.

The front of the Hotel Del

My son in front of the Del a couple of years ago. There was a geocache right behind him. It’s gone now, but there’s plenty more where that came from. The large turret on the left is the roof of the main dining room – the Crown Room.

You have to see The Del to really appreciate it.  Pictures don’t reveal the true scope, size, setting or architecture of this national treasure. When you go through the doors, whether it’s to stay or just have lunch, it’s like walking back in time. It’s especially enchanting during the holidays. They spare no effort to bedeck the entire place in the spirit of the season. When we lived in San Diego, we went to the Del for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, depending on who was around.

Movies have been filmed here. It has been featured in books and been home to writers.  L. Frank Baum did much of his writing here and used The Del as a model for his Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.  He also designed the chandeliers that still light the main dining room – the Crown Room.

The list of stars and VIP’s who have visited here reads like a Who’s Who of the last century. One of The Del’s favorite stories is about the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1920, who later became King Edward VIII.  He abdicated his throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, who lived in Coronado.  They met at the Del.

There’s also a resident ghost – Kate Morgan –  who died here under mysterious circumstances in 1892 and frequents the old section of the hotel.

The interior courtyard of the Del.

The interior courtyard of the Hotel Del. It’s more than a place to stay. It’s a destination. There’s world class shopping here, dining in several restaurants and live music. Enjoy the surf and the sun. Stroll on the beach. You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the Del. You do, however, have to be prepared to pony up some serious money for your excursion here.

Much has changed in Coronado since The Del opened. The city has grown up around it. A cracker box fixer-upper in town runs about $1,000,000. The US Navy has a substantial presence here with the Naval Amphibious Base and North Island Naval Air Station. The Naval Special Warfare Center where the Navy SEALs are trained is practically next door. In fact, some of their rough water boat training takes place on the rocks of the jetty right in front of The Del.  The SEALs routinely run along the beach, much to my daughter’s delight the last time we were there.

If you come to southern California, don’t miss The Del.

Hooyah … Boris and Natasha

Britain’s Day of Infamy – December 10, 1941

Hi again,

Almost everybody recognizes the date December 7, 1941. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on that day is known in the history books as the Day of Infamy, a phrase used by President Roosevelt during his address to Congress asking for a Declaration of War. What most people don’t know is that our staunchest ally, Great Britain, had its own day of infamy three days later.

As the Pearl Harbor raiders were recovering on board their carriers, an equally calamitous event was unfolding in the western pacific. The Japanese Imperial Army was landing in southern Thailand and northern Malaya, while sending bombers to strike the crown jewel of the British empire – Singapore.

The landings and bombings on the 8th kicked off a two month campaign that would end in the surrender of Singapore, the destruction of the city and the largest defeat in British military history. Despite the clear and present danger posed by the Japanese aggression, the people of Singapore didn’t take much notice. Singapore had a worldwide reputation as an island fortress that rivaled the Rock Of Gibraltar. They were convinced that their island city was impregnable and that the Japanese wouldn’t dare attack it. Besides, they had an ace up their sleeve. The Royal Navy was in town, led by the pride of the fleet – the HMS Prince of Wales.

The HMS Prince of Wales

The HMS Prince of Wales was Britain’s newest, fastest and most heavily armed warship. Packing 10 x 14 inch guns, she could also fill the sky with flak from her secondary batteries and put up thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft fire per minute. She entered service in May 1941 and had her baptism of fire one week later when she traded salvos with the Bismark. During that running fight, she absorbed four hits from German 15 inch rounds – including a direct hit on the bridge – and kept fighting. Three months later, she carried Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. There, he hosted on board his first council of war with President Franklin Roosevelt. She was a personal favorite of Churchill’s and considered invulnerable. Somebody forgot to tell the Japanese.

The fleet had arrived on December 2, sent by Winston Churchill in response to Japanese provocations in the region. Their timely arrival was a coincidence, but considerably lessened the impact of events on the 8th. British leaders were confident that the task force would deter the Japanese from attacking or make short work of them if they did.

As the Japanese prepared to attack south on the 8th, Task Force Z, under the command of Admiral Tom Phillips, sortied out of Sembawang Naval Base in northeast Singapore.  It consisted of the HMS Prince of Wales, the HMS Repulse and four destroyers. Their mission was to find and destroy the Japanese invasion fleet. Comprising 28 troop carriers and two aging battleships, it was turning circles somewhere off the coast of Malaya.  The mission to blast enemy ships out of the water was a dream come true for a battleship skipper and promised to be easy pickings for the Royal Navy.

The HMS Repulse

The HMS Repulse was a WW1-era heavy cruiser that was completely re-fitted just before the war. A veteran of Atlantic surface actions in both wars, she was still a capable fighter. However, her construction would do her in. Cruisers built in her era were designed for speed and agility. To get that, armor protection and watertight integrity were sacrificed. During the attack, the Repulse dodged 19 torpedoes. The Japanese finally caught her by coming in from both sides at once. She sank six minutes after the first hit.

Singapore was thoroughly infiltrated with Japanese spies and they knew the moment the ships slipped the harbor. Soon, every air and naval unit in the region was hunting for them and the invasion fleet was withdrawn to Indo-China. The British task force was oblivious to these developments, had no hard intelligence and no air cover. Additionally, all their new electronics, such as radars and fire control systems, started failing in the salty humid air of the tropics as soon as they arrived. None of it had been fixed. They were sailing deaf, dumb and blind. Still, Task Force Z kept searching. Finally on December 10, they found the Japanese but not the ones they were looking for.

Artist depiction of the attack on the HMS Prince of Wales

An unknown Japanese artist’s depiction of the attack on the HMS Prince of Wales. A Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bomber is dropping a Type-91 aerial torpedo. Japanese torpedoes were the best in the world and exceptionally lethal. The Type 91 was fast, accurate and packed a 500 pound warhead. The first torpedo hit on the ship was back by the propellers and would have been fatal all by itself. It tore out the port side propeller shaft from its sealed passage into the hull, creating a breach that couldn’t be stopped. The ship lost speed and power and developed an immediate list to aft and port. The Japanese continued to pour it on until it disappeared beneath the waves of the South China Sea. In all, it took four torpedo hits and at least two direct hits from 500 pound bombs.

Scout planes and a submarine found the task force early in the morning on the 10th about 50 miles out from the Malayan port city of Kuantan.  While they tracked the British ships, every Japanese aircraft between Malaya and Saigon scrambled and went after them. The air attacks began around 1100.  Over 90 aircraft took part.  There wasn’t enough time or fuel to coordinate strikes so groups attacked on arrival as soon as they found the targets.  The Repulse and the Prince of Wales both took multiple hits from torpedoes and bombs.  The Repulse sank at 1230. The Prince of Wales went a little after 1300. Admiral Phillips and almost 1,000 crew members went with them.  The destroyers were untouched and rescued hundreds out of the water despite the threat of lurking submarines and more air attacks. The Japanese lost three aircraft and their crews.

Escaping from a sinking HMS Prince of Wales

The destroyer HMS Express rescues survivors from the badly listing HMS Prince of Wales. The attack is still under way. When the battleship rolled over in her death dive, she almost took the Express with her. As she rolled, her bilge keel along the bottom of the ship came up under the Express and gave her a 40,000 ton wallop. Fortunately, the destroyer was able to ride it out. Unlike the Repulse, which sank in minutes, the Prince of Wales took almost two hours of constant pounding before she went under.

This was the first time in military history that major surface combatants were sunk in the open ocean by hostile aircraft alone. It was a harbinger of what lay ahead. The battles of Coral Sea and Midway were just around the corner and they would change naval warfare forever.  From now on, carriers and their aircraft would take the fight to the enemy with the ships 100 miles apart or more.  There would still be surface battles in the years to come, but the heyday of the battleship was over.

The sinking of two of England’s finest warships sent shock waves all the way to London. Churchill later wrote in his memoirs, “…in all the war, I never received a more direct shock.”   The losses left the Allies with no capital warships west of Hawaii.  The western Pacific was now a Japanese lake. It didn’t last long. Four months later, the Japanese navy was smashed at Midway and they spent the rest of the war on the defensive.

The wrecks of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were found after the war, in 183 feet and 223 feet of water respectively.  They are about eight miles apart. The Repulse rests semi-upright with a sharp list to port.  The Prince of Wales is completely upside down with much of her superstructure buried in the mud. In 2007, her ship’s bell was removed by British divers to prevent it from being stolen.  It now sits in a maritime museum in Liverpool, England.  Both ships are Crown property however, they are legal to SCUBA dive on and there are dive shops that make the trip regularly.  The Repulse is the better target being much shallower and with a lot more to see.  Both are deep decompression dives and not for beginners.

If you like to explore underwater, Singapore and Malaysia offer some top notch SCUBA diving. There are a lot of wrecks in the surrounding area including the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. There are many others and dive shops make regular trips, with destinations for divers of all experience and ability levels. The South China Sea has excellent visibility most of the time and is warm as bath water in the shallower depths. If you’re a diver in Singapore, it’s worth checking out.

That’s all for now … Boris and Natasha

The Roadkill Cafe

Down in Alabama at the intersection of the Foley Beach Expressway and Alabama 98 in Baldwin County is a little town called Elberta.  About a half mile east of the intersection is a diner called the Roadkill Cafe.  Their motto is “You kill it, we grill it.” We were out geocaching in the vicinity one day and ran across it.  Well, with a name like that, how could we resist? 

The outside of the Roadkill Cafe.

The Roadkill Cafe
25076 State St
Elberta, AL 36530
(251) 986-5337
Hours: M-F 10:30 to 12:30
or there abouts
“You kill it, we grill it.”
Check out the mural on the right.

Y’all plug this into your GPS – 30.414339, -87.597030 – and click on the linked numbers for a Google map.

This is definitely a locals place.  Everybody who comes in and out seems to know everyone else. We were the only outsiders but were welcomed warmly.  Everybody was real nice.  The menu is on the chalkboard by the door and all the food is laid out buffet style, including salad and dessert.  For eight bucks, you get it all and as much as you want except your drinks.

This is real home-style Southern cooking.  I had chicken fried steak, red beans and rice and cornbread.  Natasha had fried chicken and mashed potatoes with lemon cake for dessert.  It was all good stuff.  We could have easily gone back for seconds and thirds but resisted the temptation.  Most of the people there did not.

This is the kind of fine dining we look for on our adventures.  There are over a dozen geocaches within a short drive so you can roadkill a couple of birds with one stone.  If you want to eat here, you’ll have to time it right. They are only open Monday – Friday from 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM although locals were streaming in after the closed sign went up.  Maybe they stay open until the food runs out.

Inside the Roadkill Cafe

Inside the Roadkill. Clean and simple. Menu on the chalkboard. Eight dollar buffet in the middle. This was taken about 10 minutes after closing. Before that, all the tables were full. There were still some locals wandering in after this was taken.

So forget your diet for a day and check out the Roadkill Cafe. Don’t pay no never mind to the Subway next door.

Y’all come soon….Boris and Natasha

One of My Best Days as a Dad

My first wife and I had kids late.  I was 40 when our son was born, so we were raising teenagers in our 50’s.  By then, we were divorced but I lived right around the corner and spent a lot of time with the kids.  Every summer from 2004 to 2010, Ben (call sign Bravo Lima) and I would take an extended trip somewhere adventurous.  Our playgrounds were South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, California and my native Pennsylvania. We hiked, biked, rafted and four-wheeled  in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, San Diego, the Black Hills and the Little Bighorn.   We also geocached.  On many days, we simply picked out some historical or back country caches and went for them.

Our equipment was primitive by today’s standards. For the first couple of years, we used Magellan Sportrak Map GPS devices, with their serial cables that loaded one geocache at a time.  Many times, we stuck our arms out the car window while we were moving to get a decent signal.  Ben became a good geocacher with a sharp eye.  The find in this picture was one of his better ones during a very successful day of Montana geocachingyears ago.

A geocache in Montana

Bravo Lima bags the “Sow Your Wild Oats” geocache.

This is Bravo Lima at the “Sow Your Wild Oats” cache northwest of West Yellowstone, MT.  It wasn’t a particularly difficult cache but the scenery was spectacular.  So here’s this piece of rusty John Deere equipment sitting in the middle of nowhere.  There must have been a farm here.  Located  on the shores of Hebgen Lake, the ground was flat and there were old barbed wire fences weaving through the thick, new-growth woods.  Ben took the lead on the way in and nailed it like a pro while this proud Dad just followed along.   After a day of this, we went back to our room at the Old Faithful Lodge for dinner and a geyser show.   It was a good day.  Next morning, we were back at it.

Cheers … Boris and Ben

Vintage Vanilla, Albany, TX

Vintage Vanilla, Albany, TX

We found a cool little town named Albany about 30 miles north of Abilene, TX. Had a bite to eat at this 1907 drug store and soda fountain that’s still going strong. Very cool place and very nice people working there. It’s right on Main St. You can’t miss it. There are a dozen geocaches in town and lots more in the surrounding area. Once again, geocaching took us to a place we never would have seen otherwise.

Lewis and Clark Caverns

View inside the caverns

A view deep inside the caverns. As part of the tour, shortly after this picture was taken, the guide got us in a small group and turned out the lights. The blackness was unbelievable. The eyes don’t adjust because there is zero light. In the days of Morrison and the Civilian Conservation Corps, men sometimes found themselves stranded in the caves with no light. Under those circumstances, there was no way out. They simply had to wait until someone found them.

Fifty miles west of Bozeman, Montana, near the town of Whitehall, the Lewis and Clark Caverns are some of the largest, most spectacular and well developed limestone cavern complexes in the western hemisphere. Now part of the Montana State Park system, it was named for the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which passed nearby twice but never saw the caves.

In winter, the 50 degree cave air mixing with the cold air outside creates an effect that looks like smoke coming out of the ground. 

The local Native Americans knew of the caves for centuries but there’s no indication that they ever went there.  It was considered a holy and forbidden place. If they ever explored it, they left absolutely no trace.  It was completely unknown to whites until its discovery by hunters in 1895, who were drawn to explore the mysterious ground smoke.

Subsequent to that, a miner and entrepreneur named Dan Morrison staked a claim to the land and began to explore the inside of the cavern. Working by the faint light of carbide headlamps and candle lanterns, he rigged 2,000 wooden steps and began leading eight hour tours through the caverns around the turn of the century. Some of the remnants of those steps and ladders can be seen in today’s tours.

The Northern Pacific Railroad sued over his stake, claiming the land belonged to them.  They won, but Morrison kept fighting them and leading tours up to his death in 1932 at age 80.

The railroad gave the land to the federal government and in 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps went to work. Working under many of the same conditions as Morrison had, they turned the caverns into what they are today. They widened passages and blasted the tunnel through which tours now exit. They also built steps or chiseled them into limestone to replace Morrison’s rickety wooden ones.  For safety, they laid an electrical grid to power lights and communications.  They also explored all chambers and hauled away tons of bat guano.

Steps inside the cavern

Steps built by the CCC showing you’re one mile high inside a mountain.

Today the caverns are part of a 3000 acre park of the same name.  There are campsites, hiking and biking trails, a visitor’s center, a store and  a cafe (summer only). Cavern tours are available from May 1 to September 30.

The tours are two hours long and can be strenuous. The altitude here is 5300 feet.  There is a long uphill walk to the entrance of the cavern, where you meet your guide. During the tour, you will ascend or descend 600 steps, slide through narrow tunnels between chambers and work your way around close passageways.  It covers about two linear miles and ends 200 feet below where you started. The temperature is 50 degrees year round.  Wear a sweater and good rubber soled shoes.  Also bring some water. If you are out of shape, extremely overweight or claustrophobic, you might want to skip this tour.  We’ve been on many cave/cavern tours and this one was probably the toughest one we’ve seen that’s open to the general public.

I would also take a flashlight or two. (Remember-Two is one and one is none.) The cave is wired with lights and communications systems.  The guide has radio contact with the Visitor Center at all times and checks in with them regularly.  But after being in that darkness for two minutes, I’d have my own backup with me.

A view of the park

Natasha in the Visitor Center parking lot. Check out the scenery. The caverns are inside the barren mountain on the right. The GPS coordinates for the parking lot are N45.838624, W111.866831. The hyperlinked numbers will take you to a Google map.

The rest of the park is breath taking (sometimes literally) and is an outdoorsman’s paradise.  There are no geocaches in the park, but there are a half dozen within a short drive and they are on the upper end of the difficulty scale.  If you’re looking for adventure caching, Montana is the place to be. More information and details about this cool place can be found on Montana’s state park website.

If you can’t get there in person, here’s a link to a great virtual tour inside the caves.

Rock on … Boris and Natasha

Devils Tower National Monument

If Devils Tower National Monument looks familiar to you but you can’t quite place it, perhaps you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It was used as a location for the movie. A massive tapered stone column towering over 1,000 feet above the surrounding countryside, Devils Tower can be seen for miles and would be a perfect beacon for alien spaceships.  More likely, you’ve seen some of the beautiful scenic photographs taken over the years. Either way it is a sight you will not soon forget.

Close up view of Devils Tower

Classic view of Devils Tower taken from the parking lot in front of the visitors center. The actual formation of the tower is a source of mystery and argument among geologists. While it is clearly volcanic in nature, there is no evidence of any volcanic activity anywhere in the area. The best guess is that it is cooled lava that was a mile or more underground at one time.  It all eroded away and left this.  It will be gone in about a million years because the rock keeps eroding, sometimes sloughing off in big slabs, creating the grooves on the tower and the talus rock around the base.

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as our first National Monument on September 24, 1906.  It is located not far from Sundance, Wyoming in the northeast corner of Wyoming in the Black Hills overlooking the Belle Fourche River Valley. It stands 1267 feet tall with a diameter at the bottom of 1,000 feet and 275 feet at the top.  The top is roughly the size and shape of a football field, covered with scrub grass and actually has small resident rodents that call it home. The elevation at the summit is 5,212 feet.

The first documented white visitors to the tower were  members of Captain William Raynold’s 1859 Yellowstone Expedition, although it was probably explored years before by mountain men.

The first formal survey of Devils Tower was led by Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge in 1875 and it was this expedition that gave it its Anglo name.  Dodge’s Indian interpreter translated the Native American name to Bad God’s Tower which led to Devils Tower.  The name has a historical hiccup which exists to this day.  The word Devils is the correct name as opposed to Devil’s, which is grammatically proper. According to the National Park Service,  the proclamation signed by President Theodore Roosevelt inadvertently dropped the apostrophe in Devil’s.  That made the official name Devils and it was never changed. 

It has long been considered a sacred site by many of the northern plains Indian tribes. Some of those tribes referred to it as the Bear’s Lodge. One of the legends that surround Devils Tower is that the vertical grooves in the rock were placed there by a giant bear that was chasing some Indian maidens, who climbed the column to safety. There are six major tribes that have both cultural and geographic ties to the area: Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Shoshone. The National Park Service says that there are over 20 tribes that have treated Devils Tower as Holy Ground.

Distant view of Devils Tower

Distant view of Devils Tower from a roadside pullout about five miles south. The rolling hills of this 1,347 acre park are covered with pine forests, deciduous woodlands, and prairie grasslands. Deer, prairie dogs, and other wildlife are abundant.  There is a huge prairie dog village along the road near the entrance which is a great source of amusement for visitors.

Today the monument attracts about 400,000 tourists each year. They peacefully co-exist with the Native American traditions and rites still observed at Devils Tower. Visitors will see various prayer objects hanging in trees or on the ground and are asked not to disturb them.

In addition to camping, hiking and sightseeing, a major recreational activity at Devils Tower is mountain climbing.  Colonel Dodge’s survey report concluded that the summit was “inaccessible to anything without wings.”  It was almost another 20 years before two local ranchers – William Rogers and Willard Ripley – became the first to climb it.

They spent weeks pounding wooden pegs into a continuous crack on the southeast face and attaching wooden steps to them. On July 4, 1893 in front of 1,000 spectators, they ascended their makeshift ladder to the top and ran an American flag up a flagpole they had pre-staged there. Mountain climbing at Devils Tower was born. Parts of the ladder used by Rogers and Ripley are still visible today.

The first technical ascent was on June 28, 1937 by Fritz Weissner and Lawrence Coveney.  Roughly 5,000 people climb it each year with only five deaths reported since 1893.

In 1941, a man named George Hopkins parachuted on to the summit.  He then had to wait six days to be rescued and was half-dead from exposure and dehydration when they got to him.

Top of Devils Tower

OK. I knew you wanted to see the top. This is the best I could do until I climb it. Climbing is big business with a number of climbing schools, clinics and guides available. There are many different routes to the top of varying difficulty. In keeping with the sanctity and solemness of the site, they have sacred names like Rock Suckers and Spank the Monkey.

For those who are less adventuresome, there are two trails around the base of the tower. The Red Beds Trail is a three mile hike and there is a shorter 1.25 mile Base Trail. These hikes are worth taking as they bring you close to the tower and give you a different perspective of its majesty. They can be a bit strenuous with altitude and some short but steep grades. Be sure to allow sufficient time and take water with you. There’s none on the trails.

There are camp sites available and a visitor’s center but other than that, accommodations and creature comforts are pretty sparse.  Parking can be a challenge during the peak season.  Be prepared to park along the road or down below and walk a ways.

As with most National Parks and Monuments there are no traditional container geocaches on monument grounds. There are numerous geocaches in the surrounding area and nearby Black Hills.

So if you are ever in the Wyoming Black Hills, turn north at Sundance and follow the signs to Devils Tower. You can’t miss it.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #7

After a brief hiatus to get acquainted with our new granddaughter, the countdown continues.  This is a Pennsylvania cache from July 2005 called The Spooky Tunnel.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas.  In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous.  The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state.  Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands.  This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 200 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see.

Through the middle of all this, the state built a four lane highway that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed highway in the U.S.  Construction started in October 1938.  The first 160 mile section from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg opened for business on October 1, 1940.  Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since.

The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways and minimize curves and hills.  To do this, they built a series of tunnels through the mountains instead of going over them.  One of these was the Laurel Hill Tunnel.  Its story is told in the pictures that follow.

Laurel Hill Tunnel in the 1940's
A view of the Laurel Hill Tunnel in the 1940’s. It was originally designed and excavated as a railroad tunnel at the turn of the century but the railroad never got here. It was incorporated into the Pennsylvania Turnpike which opened in 1940 as the nation’s First Superhighway.

This rugged woodland is a geocachers dream.  It has everything from one star drive ups to five star expeditions.  Overlooking the long abandoned Laurel Hill Tunnel is the three star Spooky Tunnel geocache.  My son and I tackled it in July of 2005.  It was our first summer of geocaching.

The abandoned Laurel Hill Tunnel
The problem with the Laurel Hill Tunnel is that it only had two lanes and the turnpike had four. It became a two-ended bottleneck. Even in the 1940’s and 50’s, traffic jammed up at both ends. As cars and trucks became bigger and faster, the traffic got worse and the tunnel got more dangerous. There were horrific crashes in and around the tunnel during its years of use. By the early 1960’s, something had to be done. That something was to forget about 100 mph straightaways and build a six lane road over the steep mountain, bypassing the tunnel completely. The Laurel Hill Bypass opened in 1964. The now abandoned tunnel lay dormant for years. This a view from the early 1980’s.

The hardest part of the cache is figuring out which back country road goes to the parking pullout.  Once parked, it’s about 1/2 mile of bushwhacking to get to the cache.  There’s no trail and the summertime brush, the bugs and old barbed wire fences can be challenging. The cache itself is well hidden (at least it was) and the heavy overhead canopy can make the GPS go crazy.

Laurel Hill Tunnel
The abandoned tunnel served a variety of ad hoc purposes for 30 years after it was abandoned. It was used as a garage for maintenance vehicles, storage for road sand and salt and a police firing range. Up until the early 80’s, you could walk or bike through it. Around 2000, the tunnel became the scene of intense activity. No Trespassing signs were posted and the State Police patrolled it heavily. Structures resembling airlocks or decon stations went up along with barriers and satellite antennae. The whole thing was sealed off with no outward evidence of activity or occupation. People began to speculate about all the things that might be going on there. Department of Defense? Homeland Security? Nuclear waste?  Archaeological dig? Alien spacecraft?

You can’t miss the tunnel.  Just keep walking downhill and you’ll run right into it. The view of the tunnel from the cache site is awesome.  It’s completely out of place in this remote area but there it is, satellite antennae and all.

Spooky Tunnel
After years of speculation, the answer finally got out, thanks to the Internet. An engineering company that develops NASCAR racing technology bought the tunnel and turned it into a giant wind tunnel. They wanted to keep it quiet but you know how that goes. Now, they have a website that tells all. It’s pretty interesting. The place is strictly off limits but a geocache was placed above it in 2003. It’s still there. This is a geocacher’s view of the (Not So) Spooky Tunnel.

Anyway, we had a good time getting it and bagged several more in the same area that day.  As I’ve said before, some of my best days as a Dad were out geocaching with the kids and this was one of them.

BTW, if you’re interested in who is using the tunnel and what they’re doing, here’s the tell all website.

Cheers … The Cachemanian Devils

National Park Service Passport Stamps

In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. The Cachemanian Devils